Women who raise domestic violence and coercive control in custody disputes feel they are not believed in the family courts, an advocate working with mothers who have experienced abuse has warned.
Mary Louise Lynch, founder of the charity Survivors Informing Services and Institutions (Sisi), which works with women in abusive relationships, said domestic violence was frequently treated as “irrelevant”, minimised or not believed at all in the family law system.
She was speaking to The Irish Times as Sisi collates the results of a survey of 54 mothers – all survivors of domestic, sexual, gender-based violence and/or coercive control. More than half of the respondents said the abuse was “not believed” or was “raised but dropped” during custody disputes. The courts “don’t seem to want to know how much it’s affected the kids”, said one mother.
Though the sample is small − given the difficulty in researching a cohort going through a legal process held in camera − it confirms concerns raised by Women’s Aid and Grevio, the Council of Europe body overseeing implementation of the Istanbul Convention about the minimisation of intimate violence in the courts where mothers seek to limit or prevent contact between perpetrators and their children.
The online and interview-based survey was conducted by Sisi and the participants were sourced through Women’s Aid and by word of mouth.
Several mothers said that when they raised abuse by their ex-partners, they were accused of engaging in “parental alienation” − whereby one parent is accused of intentionally displaying unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent to a child − and they then became the focus of abuse allegations.
Asked if the abuse was raised during family court proceedings, 40 of the 53 mothers who answered (75.4 per cent) said it was. When asked for further detail, 47 answered. Of these, 24 said the abuse was “not believed” or “raised but dropped”.
Particular concern is raised about the process of obtaining court-ordered reports on the best interests of children, under sections 47 of the Family Law Act, or 32 of the Guardianship of Infants Act.
A variety of professionals may conduct family assessments, including clinical psychologists; forensic psychologists; child and adolescent psychiatrists; and, family therapists. Costs of up to €7,000 for these assessments must be paid for by the parents, advocates say.
Mothers reported a lack of guidance as to how the reports would be conducted and the potential outcomes, and not knowing or being provided with assessors’ qualifications. None received a copy of the final report and half (27) were not allowed see it.
A tendency of some assessors to downplay histories of abuse, or to reframe a mother’s raising abuse as attempted parental alienation, is reported. “Evidence of rape was ignored as well as Garda reports documenting of violence at access handover,” said one.
“My ex abused me, beat my children black and blue, raped me, controlled me financially. The assessor’s language of reunification with the children was wildly inappropriate and dangerous,” said another.
In its third general report, published in June, Grevio said: “It is now clear the minimisation of domestic violence within family court processes is closely linked to an increasing use of the concept of ‘parental alienation’ to undermine the views of child victims of domestic violence.”
Women’s Aid, in a submission to the Department of Justice in June, said the family courts “fail women and children”.
“Many professionals, including judges and child-welfare report experts, do not understand the issues faced by women separating from an abuser nor the impact of domestic abuse, including coercive control, on children.”
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has committed to introducing wide-ranging reforms to the family court system and is expected to publish the Family Court Bill shortly.